Europe in the summer looks inviting. The sun does not set till late into the night, cafes have tables laid out on the road, and you can walk without melting. But for most Indian families, Europe means good-old packaged tours to Switzerland or Italy or France. Or perhaps it is Dubrovnik (Croatia) now, thanks to Game of Thrones.
The Baltic countries? They are not everyone’s first choice. So, when my brother-in-law proposed that the five of us — my in-laws, my husband and I, and him, the organiser of the trip — head to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in June, I was sceptical. This was truly a European trip for the clueless, given no one among us really had an idea of what we were supposed to do other than go on the designated walking tours. But learn we did. So, if you want a Eurotrip that’s vastly different from your friends, here are my experiences:
The Old Towns
The old towns of Vilnius (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia) and Tallinn (Estonia) might all seem very familiar, but have their own rewards. Yes, they are brimming with tourists, but not like the rest of Europe. My pick of the three would be Vilnius Old Town. Join the walking tour here. I say this as someone who hates walking tours, but this was worth it. Keep in mind that you will only have the strength to join one walking tour on this entire trip. The rest of the cities are best explored on your own terms.
Sites to check out in Vilnius: the Cathedral Square, its iconic bell tower, St Anne’s Church, the Literature Street in Vilnius and the Hill of Three Crosses. The last one, in particular, rewards you with some gorgeous views of the city. Plus, it is surrounded by lush greenery and meadows. No matter what the walking tour lady said, getting to the hill is not a climb. Get here in the evening, just relax and do nothing. That’s what a vacation is about.
In Riga, go into the St Peter’s Basilica during the day. Take the lift to the tower and once again see a familiar looking town from above. Go to the House of the Black Heads and see what things were like in medieval times, though that’s only the basement. The rest is all new construction. Remember the old town has a lot more nightlife to offer. Find a cafe with live music at night. Don’t take a boat ride in the middle of the day. Instead, figure out how you can go swimming in the river, unlike our party, which failed at this. Once you reach Tallinn, you will be convinced that you have already seen all of this. You are probably right. Nonetheless, walk around. Skip the museums and sit outside, because this is the bluest sky you will see all year, if you happen to live in grey Delhi.
Food is a sacred part of any vacation. I’m always suspicious of folks who claim they don’t bother about food on vacations. Prepare for a heavy diet of meat and potatoes. Trust the recommendations of your Airbnb host. Remember, there is no shame in eating Indian.
When buying groceries at the store, use Google Translate to make sure it is indeed milk you are buying, and not cream. Buy fresh strawberries from the countless stores outside in the streets. Eat a kilo of strawberries, because they are delicious.
In Riga, find a restaurant with live music. Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs was where we ended up. Order dessert and regret it because all that cream chicken and potatoes left no space in your stomach. Don’t worry, there are vegetarian options. Don’t convert restaurant bills into Indian currency just yet.
Prepare for different kinds of beer everywhere. Watch husband waste that beer because he can’t drink dark beer and has to pick something lighter. You can continue to sip on aperol spritz, because in this part of the world, cocktails are not diluted water and ice.
In Tallinn, medieval-theme restaurants are aplenty. Olde Hansa manages to sell this theme the best. The ale, wine and dessert are all excellent here; the ale is a little strong for the husband, as he finds out later. Experience the 14th century briefly, and thank the stars that you have 21st century sanitation.
The Touristy Stuff
Pay a visit to the Republic of Uzupic in Vilnius. Another Unesco World Heritage site, which even has its own Constitution written in various languages (Hindi and Sanskrit included). They demand that you enter with a smile. Cats reign supreme here. Sadly, the cat president was killed by a speeding motorcar. Don’t get your passport stamped here. Secretly wonder at the outrage in India if a part of any city were to declare independence, even as a joke.
Take a half-hour bus ride to Trakai castle from Vilnius. Skip the castle. Just hire a boat and enjoy the ride around the lake, provided you can row. Otherwise, there are motorboat options. Don’t be an idiot who hires a rowing boat without rowing skills. Remember, as the crystal clear water gently splashes around your boat, that you can never go boating in the Yamuna.
In Latvia, take a train ride to Silguda. If you need convincing, it is also called the “Switzerland of Vidzeme.” Once again, skip the castle. Just walk around in the lush greens, enjoy the breeze. Relax, look at the empty parks, lie in the fields. Post a story on Instagram to make friends in Delhi jealous as they burn in 48-degrees Celsius.
Take a bus around to each country, because they are just four to five hours away from each other. Overpay for the bus seats, because the organiser of the trip insisted on booking the fancy seats at the back, even though all seats are basically just the same. Be glad that this is a civilisation where there is WiFi on the bus.
No one told you this was going to happen. Forget that expense list, it’s of no use to anyone. Medical emergencies are no fun, especially in Europe. Insurance or no insurance, finding a specialist is next to impossible. Rush around, trying to find a doctor. Learn all doctors specialising in that particular ailment are away. Contact a doctor back home. Chide said patient/father-in-law for not getting regular checkups. Get temporary treatment in Finland. Pack the patient off to India at exorbitant ticket prices. Get back to the trip by drinking some beer and buying more fridge magnets.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Ride off into the sunshine